Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.
Rangers have become bullies since Wilson-Panarin debacle
Monday’s New York Rangers-Calgary Flames game at Madison Square Garden (because where else would it be) is an easy contender for best regular season game of this campaign. It had everything that makes hockey great: speed, physicality, emotion, dramatic goals, a buzzing crowd and a sudden-death ending.
What really stood out, though, is that the Rangers are now the bully.
It was May of 2021 when Tom Wilson engaged with Artemi Panarin and sent shockwaves throughout the Rangers organization. It essentially cost GM Jeff Gorton his job. He later said as much on a podcast. “I didn’t think that night was going to be what it turned into where people are going to lose their jobs. And it’s going to be forever remembered as what it is,” Gorton said on the Cam & Strick Podcast.
And in a January game against a Flames team that has some notable sandpaper throughout their lineup, they were the hunters, not the hunted. Jacob Trouba threw two monster hits. Blais took a big run at Milan Lucic. They didn’t back down from any scrum. Even with Blais getting dealt to the Blues on Thursday, this team should still thrive in the physicality department. I’m not here to say this will lead them to the promised land one way or another, but the organization had a clear goal and it appears they have very much accomplished it — they’re not a team that gets pushed around. For whatever it’s worth, they are seventh in the league in hits per team (they were 15th in 2021).
Caps’ blue line holding up just fine without John Carlson
John Carlson has only played 30 games this season, the last of which was on Dec. 23 right before Christmas. At the time of his injury, Carlson was leading all Capitals defensemen in ice time per game, logging 23:24 per night while also putting up 21 points in those outings. Those are big minutes and production to replace.
To no surprise, Dmitri Orlov, who was playing around a minute and a half less than Carlson, is now averaging a hair more than what Carlson was at 23:32 per game. That increase has come at even strength, where he’s been playing just over 21 of his minutes since Carlson got hurt. In that time, there are only six other defensemen in the league who have been playing more per night. He’s been a horse.
The biggest benefactor, though, has been Erik Gustafsson, jumping from fifth to second in the ice-time pecking order among defensemen. It’s not just power-play time either — he’s only playing 50 seconds more with the man advantage per game. He leads all Capitals defensemen in scoring in that time with 12 points in 17 games, with a whopping 10 of those points coming at even strength.
He’s had one of the stranger careers I can remember, highlighted by a 17-goal, 60-point season with the Blackhawks in 2018-19. He tailed off the following season, then got traded to the Flames shortly before the league shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ended up playing in all 10 of their playoff games. Then he signed in Philly as they started to take a downturn, got traded to the Canadiens and played in 16 playoff games as they went to the Cup final. He then signed back with the Blackhawks and wasn’t able to recreate his magical season before signing a one-year, $800,000 deal last summer with Washington, where he’s up to seven goals and 29 points in 52 games while picking up big minutes with their franchise defenseman injured.
His partner, Trevor Van Riemsdyk, is also playing two and a half minutes more on average, now logging 20 per night. They are crushing their minutes, too, hovering around 54 percent in all major categories and outscoring opponents by five at even strength. “TVR” is the steady, defensive righty, while Gustafsson is the fast, puck-moving offensive weapon.
Meanwhile, Carlson’s regular partner, Martin Fehervary, is playing a minute and a half less per game since Carlson’s gone down. An injury to a big-time player has so many domino effects and it’s always fascinating to see how it plays out and who steps up.
Islanders get trade-deadline party started early
If nothing else, in a risk-averse league, you have to admire the Islanders going for it. They are firmly a bubble playoff team in an 82-game regular season, but they have a roster that’s built to cause trouble in the playoffs.
Ilya Sorokin is one of the best goalies in the world. That alone can get you very far. Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are a good shutdown pair that generally ends up outscoring their opponents. Noah Dobson has slowed down offensively but is still one of the better goal-scoring threats from the point. Scott Mayfield is good.
They are deep down the middle now with Bo Horvat, Mat Barzal, JG Pageau, Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas all in the fold. This is a veteran group that has been to multiple conference finals — they know the grind. We always hear how playoff hockey is different from regular season hockey because it’s true. But you have to make the playoffs first.
The Islanders are battling with the Capitals, Penguins, Sabres and Panthers for two wild-card spots. They are fourth in points percentage among that group right now but are also on a four-game winning streak and look energized from bringing in a big name. The hardest thing to account for is the momentum and boost a team can get from a big move.
As a veteran team, the players aren’t concerned about the picks or prospects going out. They swapped one roster player for a much better roster player. Last season the wild-card race was all but decided at Christmas. This season there are a number of good teams that have a legitimate case to make it. This is fun. This is what hockey should feel like in the second half.
Don’t forget about Gabriel Landeskog — or the defending champs
For all the talk of the big names available as the trade deadline approaches, the biggest acquisition any team might be making might not be through a trade at all.
The Colorado Avalanche have yet to play a game this season with Gabriel Landeskog in the lineup. He is truly one of the game’s only remaining throwback power forwards and he had a monster season last year captaining the Avalanche to the Cup with 30 goals and 59 points in just 51 games, along with 78 penalty minutes and four fights, which we are noting here to highlight how involved he is physically. Then he contributed 11 goals and 22 points in 21 playoff games.
There are a lot of good players available this year — more than I can remember in a very long time. I’m not sure anyone is as good as Landeskog if he can come back at full health. The Avalanche provided what was really their first detailed game plan with Landeskog this week with Jared Bednar saying, “Landy is actually working for another week or so until we get back. We’ll see him back in Denver, probably middle of the month, with the intention being that would be the time he comes back to start getting on the ice with our guys. Probably first alone, with the medical team, then hopefully joining Shawn Allard, our skating coach and skills coach and working his way back up to join the club.”
The Avalanche have five days off between Feb. 19 and 24. They have been treading water a bit this season and certainly haven’t played to their potential given all of their injuries, and yet they still sit third in their division, staring down a first-round matchup with the Winnipeg Jets. The West is wide open right now. The Avs need to get healthy but the path to a repeat is on the table if they do.
NHL trade-season drama is nothing to sneeze at
It’s common to hear things like, “Why can’t the NHL match the NBA in terms of league drama and trades.” It’ll never happen on the surface because, quite simply, a single player won’t come anywhere close to impacting the final result of a hockey game the way a single player in the NBA can impact a basketball game.
The NBA landscape changes all the time because a player or two one way or another can swing an entire conference. That’s essentially what happened when Kevin Durant got traded from a team in fifth place in the Eastern Conference to a team in fifth place in the Western Conference. The stars drive the league, whereas the top teams in the NHL have so many high-end players that a single one generally won’t swing it much either way.
The Avalanche, for example, lost Nazem Kadri and Landeskog hasn’t played a game yet. They lost their starting goalie and another good player in Andre Burakovsky, but they’re still good.
With all that said, the action we are seeing in the NHL is nothing to sneeze at. We have already seen two very good players move and the NHL trade deadline is still weeks away. The list of available players this year is full of legitimate difference makers. A few of those players, namely Timo Meier and Jakob Chychrun, are young, legitimate stars.
There are plenty of gripes to be had with the NHL — we even have one at the bottom of this column — but there is all kinds of entertaining movement and posturing taking place around the league. There are easily seven or eight teams that think they can — and maybe even should — win the Stanley Cup this season. A legitimate arms race is building up between these teams. It’s a seller’s market. I wouldn’t short change this drama or setup by any means.
Rangers make a high-reward splash with Tarasenko trade
The Islanders got the trade party started, so naturally, the New York Rangers were next up and acquired Vladimir Tarasenko as well as Niko Mikkola from the St. Louis Blues, who appear ready to confront reality. This is the second time in a few years these organizations have traded Russian wingers. The first was Pavel Buchnevich going from New York to St. Louis. One player involved in that trade, Sammy Blais, was just involved in another trade between these two teams as part of the Tarasenko deal. What will be particularly interesting to see is how much gas Tarasenko has left in the tank.
He hasn’t had a goals per game rate as low as he currently does in a full season of hockey (40-plus games), since his first full campaign in the NHL. He was available last year but teams weren’t sure how he would return coming off his third shoulder surgery. The Seattle Kraken passed on him for free in the expansion draft. The price at the time was reportedly quite low. He responded with a 34-goal and career-high 82-point season.
This would be his lowest shot output in a 40-plus game campaign since his first full season as well. Then you look at some of his goals and you see that he can clearly still shoot.
Is this the classic case of a player whose production has taken a downturn in part because of the struggles of his team? He has played primarily with Robert Thomas and Buchnevich. Those are great players. The Rangers are certainly betting on a change of scenery going to his legs — and his shot.
While his goal scoring is down, his production has only taken a slight dip. Tarasenko has 41 goals in 90 career playoff games. He is a gamer. You score a few big goals at key times and you’re well worth it.
Kevin Fiala still thriving in L.A. after fascinating Kings-Wild trade
“Kevin didn’t do well in the playoffs, but we’re all dying to keep him… I like Matt Dumba. I think he’s a damn good defenseman, and people want to write him out of town just because Kevin had three good months.”
Those were the words of Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin after the Wild were eliminated last season in six games, in which Fiala had zero goals and three assists. The cash-strapped Wild ended up trading Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings for Brock Faber and a first-round pick (19th overall, which became Liam Öhgren). Faber, it should be noted, is having a nice season at the University of Minnesota and looks like a prospect of note.
For his part, though, Fiala is still very much producing. He’s up to 53 points in 53 games to start his Kings career. His production is pretty well in line with his career season with the Wild, scoring and producing just slightly less. An interesting wrinkle in that, though, is that he’s playing on the de facto third line. They tried him at the top of the lineup and he has played a lot with Adrian Kempe, but their numbers weren’t particularly strong and they have been outscored while playing together. He’s now on the third line with Blake Lizotte and Jaret Anderson-Dolan. This is going to be a fascinating deal to look back on in five years or so when we have a better indication of what the Wild really got back. But for now, Fiala certainly is keeping up his production.
Jack Campbell’s resurgence is promising for the Oilers
Don’t look now but Jack Campbell is rather quietly on an eight-game winning streak. There’s no way around it, the start of Campbell’s Oilers tenure was an unmitigated disaster. In 2022 he played in 16 games, had an .876 save percentage and effectively lost the net to Stuart Skinner. Since the turn of the calendar, though, he has played in 10 games, started eight, is 8-1-0 and has a .916 save percentage. He has yet to allow more than three goals in a game this calendar year. Those are the types of numbers the Oilers expected from Campbell when they signed him to a five-year, $25-million contract in the summer.
Chances are he was always going to rebound to some degree. He’s not an .876 goalie in the NHL. He’s even getting some bounces — this Robby Fabbri miss was an absolute gift. What’s promising for the Oilers, though, is that Campbell has seemingly been able to work his way out of a big jam.
There was a lot of pressure on him after he signed a big contract and it did not start well. His journey from 11th overall pick to the ECHL, to quality backup, to full-time starter for the Toronto Maple Leafs is well documented. The talent has always been there but he is notoriously hard on himself. In November he called his performance “pathetic,” which led you to wonder whether this was going to spiral out of control.
There is no worse contract in hockey than a big one for a goalie who isn’t playing well. You can’t move that. To see him work his way out of this and go on a run is all kinds of promising and probably has more than a few people in the Oilers organization breathing much easier.
Torts, Flyers management seemingly on the same page after all
After an awkward, public back-and-forth between Flyers management and head coach John Tortorella, it was nice to hear an aligned approach that was very much rooted in reality: the Flyers need to rebuild.
The messaging was explicit when Tortorella said, “We’re not there yet. This was the first step in building the future of the Flyers and restoring our reputation as one of the most respected teams in hockey.” The second thing of note was Tortorella telling fans with season tickets that the cost of April’s three home games will be credited towards 2023-24’s renewal. Not bad.
It should be noted in all of this that Philadelphia has become a city of winners lately. The Phillies just went to a World Series. The Eagles are about to play in the Super Bowl. The 76ers are contenders and have an MVP candidate. Then you have the Flyers. They are the worst ticket in town and it’s not close. They have to incentivize people to stay and be honest and transparent about what they are doing. A lot of organizations live in denial. If nothing else you have to appreciate the approach.
Crosby throws support behind 1-vs-8 playoff format
It was nice to hear Sidney Crosby speak honestly about the NHL playoff format. New superstars have emerged but for my money there isn’t a more prominent voice in the league playing today. And he said what a lot of people are thinking.
“I like 1-to-8 just because I think the regular season is as difficult as it is, teams should be rewarded. That’s probably the best way to be rewarded, even though there isn’t a ton of difference. I like that version a little bit better,” he said during All-Star weekend.
Any number of surveys on social media have indicated fans overwhelmingly want a 1-to-8 playoff seeding. Here is one example courtesy John Shannon, with 8,200-plus responses and 72 percent of fans wanting the league to bring back that format. Anecdotally, I haven’t spoken to a single person in real life that prefers the locked in playoff bracket compared to 1-to-8. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in, good companies listen to their customers. In this case it’s not even just the customers — it’s the employees, too.
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